Becoming Pikesville

Posted on October 12th, 2012 by

By Research Historian Deb Weiner

Last weekend I volunteered on a political campaign in the swing state to the north. As I was sitting in the campaign office in Harrisburg, another group of Baltimore volunteers walked in. One of the women looked at me and said, “You look familiar.” She looked vaguely familiar to me as well. Neither of us could figure out how we knew each other until she offered, “I’m from Pikesville.” I responded, “Oh, I work at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Have you been there?” Turns out she used to work at the Associated Jewish Federation, and we probably met at some kind of Associated-related event.

To anyone from Baltimore, my response would not seem to be a non sequitur. That’s because saying “I’m from Pikesville” is virtually a substitute for saying “I’m Jewish,” but without the awkwardness of announcing your religious identity to a (near) total stranger. The fact is, Pikesville is home to 30 percent of Baltimore-area Jews, according to the most recent Associated Population Study. Even more pertinent, around four out of five Jews live in the northwest portion of the Baltimore metro area, from Upper Park Heights to Owings Mills and beyond, in an area that might realistically be termed “Greater Pikesville.”

Which brings me to the subject of this blog post. Next Wednesday, October 17, we are opening the traveling exhibition “Jews on the Move: Baltimore and the Suburban Exodus, 1945 to 1968.” The exhibition reveals how and why Jews became concentrated in the metro area’s northwest suburbs in the decades after World War II. It was a process that took only a single generation to complete, but remains a powerful fact of Baltimore Jewish life today, several decades later.

It’s a national story, but with a local twist—Baltimore Jews joined the rush to suburbia that occurred across America after World War II, but why they ended up in one particular section of the metro area is a complex tale with a lot of local nuances. Ironically, the exhibition does not really focus on Pikesville, because it wasn’t until the early 1980s that Pikesville beat out Randallstown as the suburb of choice for Jews within northwest Baltimore. What the exhibition does do is show how the “northwest exodus” became firmly established in those early years of suburbanization, leading to the settlement patterns we see today.

By the way, I should mention that the exhibition is opening not here at the JMM, but at Hodson Hall on the Johns Hopkins University campus, where it will be on view until December 17. We created the exhibition in partnership with students in JHU’s Museums and Society program, through a class that JMM staff taught last spring.  The students were from all over (California, New York, D.C. suburbs) but by the time the semester ended they could throw around terms like “Baltimore Beltway” and “Mandell-Ballow” with ease.

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And What About Ranch Dressing?

Posted on July 23rd, 2012 by

By Deb Weiner

We are in the midst of preparing a traveling exhibition that will explore the participation of Baltimore Jews in the great national rush to suburbia that occurred in the two decades after World War II. It’s called “Jews on the Move” and will open in October on the campus of Johns Hopkins University. JHU students helped develop the exhibit as part of a museum studies class they took last spring.

Marvin, our new director, took a look at the exhibition script earlier this week and questioned our use of the word “rancher” as shorthand for ranch house. Is it too slangy? Was it really in common use? “I’m from Chicago,” he said, “and I’ve never heard this term before.”

Jews on the Move

“I’m from Chicago too,” I replied, “and I’d never heard it either!” I started thinking, hmmm, maybe I better look into this. The word appears several times in the text, which was originally drafted by our guest curator Dean Krimmel, native Baltimorean and noted expert on all things Baltimore. I trusted Dean, but once the question had been raised it occurred to me that maybe, just every once in awhile, he might slip up.

From our upcoming exhibition.

So expert historian that I am, I googled the term “Baltimore rancher” to see what would happen. When the search page appeared on my screen, the results were so immediately conclusive I had to laugh. One Baltimore rancher after another being advertised in real estate listings. Apparently ranchers are so popular that the term was even used to advertise a “gorgeous 2nd floor end unit,” which seems to me to be stretching the definition beyond common sense. Everybody knows that a rancher (or “ranch house,” as Marvin and I would call it) is a detached, one-story home.

Jolly Rancher candies

Just to see what would happen, I googled “Chicago rancher.” The first item was a very interesting video about a rancher located about sixty miles outside Chicago, who supplied grass-fed beef to city restaurants. Check it out:  http:///vimeo.com/36095119. Unfortunately the next couple items reported his sudden death, shortly after the video came out. Then various items related to “Jolly Rancher” candies (which I had never heard of before), a high school team called the Ranchers, etc.

Baltimore ranch house. Image courtesy of the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

My fact-checking was complete, but my curiosity was aroused. Is “rancher” like “hon” — one of those uniquely Baltimore quirks of language or style?  I started googling “Philadelphia rancher,” “Miami rancher,” etc. I discovered that as shorthand for ranch house, the word does seem to be in common use in the mid-Atlantic region. (Philly and Newark yes, Miami and Boston, not really. One Boston item, “Idaho Rancher Revealed as Gangster from Boston,” was pretty entertaining). But only in Baltimore was the term used to describe a second-floor end unit.

This kind of fact-checking can be fun, but it’s also important. We don’t want to have any errors in the work we put out there for the public to see, read, etc. Sometimes it’s just a matter of a quick google search, but we also go to much further lengths to make sure we’re getting things right. (In fact, the web must be used with much caution, since so many websites repeat errors and falsehoods.) So I’ll continue to trust Dean, but check up on him every once in awhile.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Unwrapping the enigmatic: Louise’s Italian Restaurant

Posted on May 23rd, 2012 by

A blog post by JHU student Evan Fowler.

A 1963 photograph (viewable at the Baltimore Museum of Industry’s website) showcases an unidentified waitress throwing pizza dough in the air at Louise’s Italian Restaurant at their 8126 Liberty Road location. The picture, with its flying dough, picturesque low price menu and stainless-steel oven, immediately captivated me. It became a part of my research portfolio for one of my spring semester classes, Staging Suburbia with the Jewish Museum of Maryland. As an outgoing undergraduate finishing his Jewish Studies minor and with a penchant towards 1950s nostalgia, I could not resist investigating this scene.

After a little digging, I discovered a 1964 advertisement from The Baltimore Sun, which mentioned additional franchise locations for Louise’s on Park Heights, Reisterstown Road, West Cold Spring, Liberty Heights and the Alameda. These locations beget a new question: why was there a chain of Italian restaurants sprouting up across Baltimore, especially in predominately Jewish neighborhoods? What was so attractive about these locations that made the owners want to place their businesses there?

This investigation evolved with a new revelation: that Jews owned the restaurants themselves. A Baltimore County Liquor Board record from 1963, in deciding whether or not to grant a liquor license to Louise’s Rockdale location (the one pictured), noted the owners of the shop as “John Gould; his wife, Mrs. Sydell Gould, and Arnold M. Snyder.” Cross-referencing these names with one of the city directories from the period, I was able to find three potential matches for John Gould, and one match for Arnold M. Synder. Using a city map, it was possible to see out of the three possible John Goulds, one lived in Pikesville, one in Towson and one in East Baltimore, while the only Arnold M. Snyder that was listed lived in Randallstown. While it is guesswork to assume their neighborhood meant they were Jewish, it was certain that they could have lived in predominately Jewish areas.

The advertisements for the stores in The Baltimore Sun, imitated the English of an Italian immigrant. For example, in the April 19, 1964 paper, the headline for the Louise’s advertisement reads: “That’s for me- a pizza! That’s for me- a sub!” There is also a smaller text beneath it that reads, “Thatsa delish!” Two months later, in the July 21, 1964 paper, the advertisement asks the reader, “Could it be you’ve never tasted real pizza?” It goes on to describe the uniqueness of a Louise’s pizza and of the inadequacy of “store-bought frozen concoctions.” The tagline from the first advertisement is repeated: “thatsa delish!”

What then, is the answer to this riddle? What motivated these owners to open an Italian restaurant in these neighborhoods? Was there some familial connection to Italian cooking, or was it a profit-maximizing endeavor, capitalizing on Old World authenticity? Were the owners trying to appeal to a broader audience, including gentiles? Why choose pizzas and grinders instead of pastrami and matzah ball soup?

The story of Louise’s, like many during my experience with the Jewish Museum of Maryland, remains hazy. My father, who has been a police officer for over forty years, would surely understand the detective-like work that has gone into this research, and other projects undertaken by my classmates. The story of suburban migration is clouded and murky. There is no one explanation for it, in the same way that there cannot be a simplification about Louise’s. That is what I have taken away from this semester. Being a historian is about unwrapping the enigmatic, trying to comprehend the inscrutable. It may not always be possible to find explanations. But sometimes the questions can be just as interesting without answers.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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